Jar Your Thinking
One of the most difficult changes to make when your child has a substance use disorder is to find ways to jar your thinking.
It’s not widely understood that a family member’s brain can actually be rewired when trying to cope with all aspects of a child’s substance use disorder behaviors as well as the complexities of daily life (work, children, COVID-19, finances…), via the limbic system. And this rewiring is a problem.
The limbic system is the reactionary part of the brain. It controls our survival-type reactions: fight-or-flight, pleasure/reward, pain, and emotions. The other two general areas of the brain are the cerebellum (our motor control functions) and the cerebral cortex (our thinking, reasoning, judgment-type responses).
Stuck in the Fight-or-Flight Stress Response
For us family members, getting stuck in the fight-or-flight stress response can be a brain changer. Here’s why.
This system was designed to prepare us to fight or run. As such, it can override access to that thinking, reasoning cerebral cortex so that we just react. We don’t ponder or even think about reacting. This is incredibly important when jumping out of the way of an oncoming car. But it doesn’t do any good when we’re trying to come up with a reasoned approach to a current problem. That’s because those capabilities occur in the cerebral cortex.
When we don’t understand how this all works, we can get stuck in the fight-or-flight zone and develop ineffective, reactionary coping skills. Lashing out in anger, shutting down, deferring to others, or trying to control everything and everybody are examples. It’s downright crazy making and more complicated that I can explain in this short article.
But the key to a family member’s recovery is to change where he or she “thinks.”
React = limbic system
Respond = cerebral cortex
Here are four such suggestions:
Take Stock of Your Common Emotions
Emotions are the triggers of a person’s fight-or-flight stress response. Spend some time thinking about yours. Are you often angry, afraid, anxious, frustrated, or worried? These could be the same emotions you feel in various situations throughout your day—and not just because you’re dealing with your child’s substance use disorder. Make a list of the ones that keep coming up. What better way to stop the reaction and coping behavior than to notice and deal with the source of your emotions from the start? Then you can deal with the emotions differently. Of course, that’s much easier said than done when you’re just starting your recovery journey. In the beginning, simply learning the importance of recognizing and/or being aware of your common emotions is a huge step.
Do a Body Check
Significant physical and emotional health consequences occur when chronically activating the stress response, referred to as toxic stress. These physical and emotional health consequences include muscle aches, anxiety, depression, stomach problems, headaches, skin conditions, racing heartbeat, and migraines. Doing a body check is another way to jar your thinking. Is your jaw tense? Does your back or neck ache? Do you feel a migraine coming on? Getting in touch with what’s going on in your body can be a clue to take stock of what’s going on in your brain.
Get in Touch With How You Really Feel
“Tell us ‘How do you feel?’ and ‘What did you do for yourself this week?’” These were the first two questions we all had to answer during “check-in” at our family group meetings at the residential treatment center to which my loved one admitted himself.
At first, I thought it was really dumb. I had one feeling—anger—and as for doing something for myself, I didn’t have time. I was too busy keeping the home front going while my loved one was in residence at the center. Before that, I was too busy keeping everyone squared away while I battled my loved one’s drinking (a battle I’d been engaged in for decades with the other loved ones in my life with alcohol use disorders). Besides, doing something for myself sounded, well, selfish.
Our family group’s therapist kept at it, however, week after week. She didn’t allow answers like, “fine,” “good,” or “okay,” either. Giving an “acceptable” answer was difficult for most of us, and our therapist was often greeted with a look that said, “So what’s wrong with ‘good,’ ‘fine,’ or ‘okay’?” We’d eventually learn to appreciate that those answers were vague and intentionally evasive, as we began to understand the reason for her effort.
Our therapist was helping us unlearn one of a family member’s primary coping skills—that of “not feeling.” This pre-meeting check-in forced us to think about ourselves, about how we felt and not about how someone else felt. In time, we could describe our feelings with words like, “frustrated,” “anxious,” “betrayed,” “used,” “stressed,” even “hopeful,” “happy,” and “content.”
Knowing how you really feels breaks through your belief that you’re “fine.”
Do Something for Yourself
As for, “What did you do for yourself this week?” it could be something like taking a walk, getting a manicure, watching a football game, or not reacting to our loved one when that person came home drunk. It could be as simple as going out for ice cream with the children.
But, initially, most of us couldn’t answer this question either. We’d offer excuses like: “I was swamped at work,” “I had to finish my tax return,” “I had to take care of my mother-in-law,” and “My friend’s mother was ill, so I had to watch her kids.” These all seemed like reasonable reasons, but our family therapist would just nod and say she understood (and you believed her because she really did). Then she’d gently encourage us to try to do something for ourselves the following week.
Believe it or not, eventually we got that, too. Some got so bold as to do something on a daily basis (like exercising), and others actually did something way out of the ordinary, like taking a weekend trip with a friend. Being able to do something “selfish” was hugely satisfying and (dare I say) fun! It was also freeing because we could see that taking the focus off the alcoholic/alcohol abuser or another family member did not cause our world to fall apart.
For most of us, it was also the first time in a long time that we’d thought about what might (or did) make us happy and not what we thought would make someone else happy. Doing something solely for yourself is one way to start changing the coping behaviors common to family members, such as people pleasing, martyrdom, or being continuously resentful/angry.
Try this exercise periodically throughout the day. Ask yourself how you’re feeling, without answering “good,” “fine,” or “okay,” and then ask yourself what you would like to do for yourself. Then do it. Learning how you feel and what you want will eventually free you to do something for yourself on a more regular basis. As important, it helps you get comfortable with setting boundaries that are healthy for you. (What you want may be to do something for someone else. That’s okay if it’s what you want to do.)